“Gods damn it, Taros, you didn’t have to kill everyone,” Ivan shouted. The engines were heating up quickly as they scorched through the atmo.
“I only killed who needed killing, Ivan.” Taros snorted as he buckled himself into the oversized jump seat near the cockpit.
Ivan shook his head. He and Taros had been together a long time. But sometimes it was trying. Taros was a huge mountain of muscle with horns on his head that would have made a Texas longhorn proud, assuming there actually was such a thing. According to Taros, there was. Kin, he said. Best not to press further.
Ivan pulled hard on the yoke. A trilling beep went off, target lock. “Taros, get in the bucket and shoot that missile down.”
Taros unbuckled and swung his huge frame up the ladder to the bucket, a gimballed autogun station at the top of the ship. His two heavily steel-shod hoofs clanged up the ladder as he climbed. Thrown around by Ivan’s wild maneuvering, he muscled his way through. Climbing in, he buckled himself up and pressed the big red button. The bucket became loose and easy, and he swung it around with his thoughts, looking for the target-locked missile.
“Any time now would be nice!” yelled Ivan. Jerking the heavy transport around, he was stressing the airframe outside of its operational envelope.
Taros exhaled over the intercom. “Don’t get your panties in a knot, Ivan.” Taros focused: the sounds of the overheated airframe, the punished engines, and even Ivan faded away. Taros squeezed the trigger gently like he would on a fine woman.
The missile exploded, shrapnel bouncing off the tough skin of the Avem Vecto.
Taros leaned back in the bucket and relaxed. “Happy now?” he asked over the intercom.
Ivan wiped the sweat from his face. “Yeah. I’m happy, Taros.”
He evened out the flight and brought her around to a gentler angle of attack. Turning on the autopilot, Ivan tried to relax. Almost getting your ass blown to smithereens tends to make one a bit uptight.
But they did have the payload onboard and a payday around the corner. Taking a drink from his whiskey flask, Ivan lit a cigarette.
He could hear Taros clomping down from the bucket. The cockpit hatch opened a moment later. Taros stuck his great bovine horned head inside.
“You need to relax, Ivan. You know if someone’s giving you trouble, I’m gonna take care of it,” Taros said in his basso profundo voice.
“Got it, my friend. You don’t need to kill everyone you meet, you know? You might want to talk with them more than once. Hard to do if they’re dead,” said Ivan.
Taros tilted his head for a moment, the huge horns on his head scratching against the bulkhead. “Perhaps a reasonable thought. We could indeed engage in philosophical conversations that might lead us further on the long slow path of enlightenment.” Taros snorted. “But then again, I could just kill them and let them try again. This reality or another, it matters not, my friend.”
Taros withdrew his head, and the cockpit hatch slid shut.
Ivan drew on his cigarette with sweaty, trembling fingers as they crossed the exosphere. Looking out through the armour glass, he watched the stars.
Breathing deeply, he began to run through his mantras, calming himself once more. The deep space ship blipped on the radar guidance systems, and a payday awaited.
The docking lock mechanism on this starship was old. Older than the Avem Vecto by far. Leaking a little air, Ivan didn’t want to open the lock into the ship and risk a full depressurization if it failed altogether.
Taros stood behind him, impatient and bored. “You gonna open that, Ivan?”
Ivan nodded. “Put on a suit. I’ll depressurize and let the air from the lock fill the cargo deck.”
Taros’s eyes narrowed. “You smellin something, Ivan? Cause that’s gonna set off an alarm. Too much O2 going through.”
Ivan grinned just a little. “Yeah, Taros. Something like that. Better them than us.”
Taros reached out across Ivan and grabbed an oversized suit. Slipping his legs in first, he was careful not to damage the suit with his hoofs. Zipping it up, he pulled a large helmet that fit over his head in two pieces, sealing around his horns. His horns being impervious to vacuum, Taros smiled inside his helmet. “Let’s get this party started, Ivan.”
Taros reached and smacked the depressurize button. An alarm went off as the air was quickly evacuated and stored.
“Brace yourself,” said Taros as he struck the other switch, opening the outer door.
Hurricane winds rushed into the airlocked cargo space. As the air pressure came up, Ivan could hear the pressure alarms squalling on the starship. Then the sounds of hatches slamming shut.
Ivan checked the air gauges, then, looking over at Taros, he nodded. Taros triggered the deck clamp releases on the package and carefully began to move it towards the cargo lock.
Both of them stayed helmeted as they moved it. The inertia of this thing was massive compared to the size of the package.
Taros looked over at Ivan. “What the hell is in this thing, Ivan? Feels like we’re moving the Avem Vecto?”
Ivan shook his head. “No idea. Let’s just get the gods damned thing off of our ship and get paid.”
The heavy case slowly slid across the docking collar. As it did, Ivan glanced down and noticed the air pressure was close to normal. Sliding it into the bay of the starship, Taros let go as two hatches opened. Six men on either side came out, armed to the teeth.
The largest of them took off his helmet as Ivan watched. No, not men at all. Some kind of bipedal lizard. He began to shout, waving his arms around.
The tremendous inertia carried the case slowly across the deck, a few inches above it. Taros looked at the case, then at the crew.
Taros opened the loudspeakers on his suit. “Hey, assholes!”
The largest one of the lizardmen kept gesturing and yelling.
Taros exhaled sharply. “Hey, assholes! Stop that case before it tears a hole in your ship!”
Finally, he noticed. Gesturing and yelling at the lizardmen, all of them ran towards the case, trying to slow it down. Their magnetic boots kept slipping as the inertia overcame them. Slowly it was getting closer to the bulkhead.
Taros smiled evilly at Ivan. “Just wish I had some popcorn for this, Ivan.”
Ivan watched, horrified. The lizardmen had managed to slow it down some, but it was still moving. Closer and closer to the hangar bulkhead. A structural support member directly in its way. The lizardmen struggled, then, seeing they were about to get crushed, climbed over one another to escape. As the “package” struck the support member, it caused the starship to jolt slightly sideways. A significant bend appeared in the hangar deck support member, the ceiling warped somewhat by the damage. One of the lizardmen’s blood splashed up and against the bulkhead as if a tube of toothpaste had been stepped on.
The largest of the lizardmen stomped over, its magnetic boots clomping against the deck. In its hand was a data pad. Taros reached out and snatched it. Pulling off his glove, he pressed his oversized thumb against it, signaling the package had been delivered. The large lizardman reached for the data pad as Taros grabbed one of his scaly hands, pressing it against the screen. The data pad showed green, and the credits were transferred. Taros released him, giving him a kick for good measure, sending the lizardman tumbling through the air across the hangar.
Ivan quickly checked their accounts and nodded at Taros.
As they started to turn and go, the pressure alarm went off again. The seals on the cargo locks were tearing away, leaking the O2 out into space.
Suddenly, a section tore away. The howling winds sucked everything and everyone not securely fastened to the deck.
Ivan saw two men sail past him, with no suits on. “Crap! Taros, let’s get out of here!”
Quickly they clomped across the quickly depressurizing hangar deck. Another lizardman tumbled past them, out into space. Crossing the docking lock, the external hatch began to drop. None of the lizardmen had suits on.
Entering the cargo airlock on the Avem Vecto, Ivan closed the outer hatch and released the docking collar. The air quickly filled the space.
Not removing his suit, Ivan started to run for the small bridge of the Avem Vecto, Taros hot on his heels.
Ivan leaped into the cockpit, firing up the engines, before even strapping in. Taros climbed the ladder up to the bucket, strapping himself in.
Even as they were slammed into their seats, a target lock painted them. “Gods damn it! Doesn’t anyone want to be friends?”
Taros called out over the coms, “I’m your friend, Ivan. With a friend like me, you’ll never have enemies.” Then he laughed, hard. “Cause I killed them all. Get it?”
Ivan shook his head. “I get it, Taros. Knock the missile down, please?”
Taros snorted over the coms. “My pleasure, Ivan.”
Taros focused, the sounds of everything fading away to silence. Taros gently squeezed the trigger, caressing it really.
The missile exploded, well away from the Avem Vecto.
“Nice shooting, Taros! And a gods damned nice payday too!” Ivan kissed his hand and touched it to the bulkhead of the Avem Vecto.
Taros grunted. “It’d be nice if every one of these bastards didn’t try to kill us.”
Ivan laughed. “They’re criminals, Taros. What do you expect? What do you think we are?”
Taros was quiet for a moment. “We’re businessmen, Ivan. Our business is delivering packages. We don’t ask questions so that we don’t have to lie. Someone tries to hurt you or me, or even the Avem Vecto, then I’m gonna take care of them.”
Ivan squinted, thinking. “I agree, that’s what we are, Taros.”
Ivan heard a target lock go off. Looking down, the gunner station, or the “bucket,” as it was known, launched a heavy strike missile. Ivan reached out, trying to cancel the missile or have it self-destroy, but he was locked out.
Yelling to himself, he banged the pilot seat arms with his fists. “Taros! What have you done! That’s a gods damned starship! Fuck knows how many souls are on board!”
The missile accelerated hard, a shielded pressure wave pushing out in front of it, making it look like a much larger object. A meteor even, streaking towards the ship.
“Ivan, you know how I feel about anyone trying to kill us. That missile may or may not knock out their engines. Payback for trying to bushwhack us.”
Ivan watched the screens as the missile closed on the engines of the starship. The area surrounding the ship became ablaze with antimissile lasers slashing out at the incoming missile. The lasers burned across what they perceived as the missile many times, but only touched the pressure wave. Some particles of the pressure wave burned away.
Ivan’s face shield darkened as the fusion engine exploded. The massive forces blew the ship in half, slowly starting to tumble down into the inevitable gravity well beneath them. Ivan unlocked his collar mount and removed his helmet. Pushing it away from him, he rubbed his sweaty face.
He could hear Taros clomping down the ladder. Taking off his helmet, then his suit, Taros sighed. “What’s done is done, Ivan. All I was doing is taking out the trash.”
Ivan reached over and engaged the autopilot. Getting out of the pilot’s seat, he stretched and then took his suit off as well. Taros reached over and took it from him, grabbing his helmet too. “I’ll take care of these, Ivan. You go get a drink and settle your nerves.”
Ivan nodded. Watching Taros go, he was worried. Ivan went back into the cockpit. Checking radar scans, he noted the escape pods rocketing away from the ship. “By the red three horned gods! There were hundreds of them!” he said to himself. Nothing he could do now but get a drink and calm his nerves. Setting up an automated scan of pods and lifeforms, he left the small bridge. Walking down to the galley for a drink, behind him, the escape pod numbers on the monitor kept climbing. Two hundred and twenty-nine, two hundred and thirty. Each escape pod could hold as many as twenty-five souls as standard escape pods went. More could be stuffed in during an emergency.
Ivan’s hands shook as he sipped his whiskey. Taros sprawled across a large sofa, an empty whiskey bottle floating in orbit around him.
Ivan checked the count with his data pad. “Taros. A bunch of them did escape. By my count, there were at least two hundred and thirty-seven escape pods that made it off of that ship. If I’ve calculated this correctly, Taros, there’s gonna be about six thousand angry lizardmen landing below.”
Taros cocked his head. “Sounds like a party to me. Do you think they have any lizard ladies with them? Hmm, I wonder what they look like.”
Ivan rolled his eyes. Running through the information, and possible landing trajectories, Ivan calculated a rough area where they would make landfall. Around a four hundred and eighty-two-kilometer area south of Sabulo Megalopolis.
Taros narrowed his eyes and exhaled hard. “See! I didn’t kill everyone, Ivan. It sounds like most of them got off the ship. It wasn’t my fault they decided to try to murder us.”
Ivan shook his head. “That doesn’t mean we have to murder them back.”
Taros sat up a little straighter. “Of course it does, Ivan. You mess with the bull, you get the horn!”
Taros leaned back and grabbed another bottle of whiskey from an ice chest strapped down near him, while Ivan watched.
“Taros, there’s gonna be six thousand or so angry lizardmen in Sabulo Megalopolis looking to make hay with us. Not to mention whoever owns that damn starship and the goods we were delivering.”
Taros snorted. “We delivered our goods. A fast-moving meteor took out their engines. Hell, the ship is still in orbit, for the moment at least. They still have a day or two before it sinks into the gravity well. Even then, if it survives the landing, they could recover it.” Taros took another long pull on his whiskey bottle. “See, Ivan! No fuss, no muss!”
Ivan shook his head, gripping his hands as they continued to shake.
The six thousand angry lizardmen in Sabulo Megalopolis weren’t in Sabulo Megalopolis. The life pods scattered across a large area, over five hundred kilometers from the megalopolis, as Ivan had predicted.
Taros was wrong. They weren’t known as the “Lizardmen.” They were the “Ambulans” or “The Walkers” in their language. And they were angry, very angry.
Princeps Aleixo dusted himself off. The life pod he’d landed in was canted over on its side. The shifting sands had undermined it as soon as it landed, causing its present circumstance.
Ductor Samu crouched near the dead body of one of the soldiers or “ambulo” as they were known, giving him last rights. Samu touched the side of one of his large teeth, then his forehead, closing his eyes for a moment. Rising, he strode to where Princeps Aleixo stood waiting.
“Princeps, I am gladdened that you are safe and sound.”
Princeps Aleixo looked at the sand beneath his clawed feet. “I wish I could say the same, Ductor Samu. But alas, here we stand. Our claws covered in white sand, instead of the black of space.”
“Yes, Princeps. Our ship lies in ruin and soon will be scattered across the white sands.”
Princeps Aleixo stared hard at the ductor (guide). “How is this that a meteor could so suddenly come across us? That the early warning system had so little time to respond? It seems fishy to me that the messenger ship would escape so, right beforehand.”
Ductor Samu nodded absently, rubbing one of his massive teeth. “Yes, yes, it would seem so. But this system is littered with the debris of starships, just as the planet itself. Perhaps that is the reason there is so much wreckage? Fast-moving meteor fragments, too small to be picked up on wide range scans, but fast enough to destroy a starship in a moment?”
Princeps Aleixo frowned. “Possibly. We shall see. If the ship survives planetfall, we will recover the data cores and make a determination then. For now, let us gather together our Ambulo. I noted that most of the life pods escaped. So we have plenty of supplies and enough vehicle to carry us.”
Ductor Samu looked at the Princeps. “Where shall we go?”
“Sabulo Megalopolis, Ductor. It is the closest port of civilization.”
Princeps Aleixo looked out into the distance, thinking. After a moment or two, he turned to Ductor Samu. “The larger life pods contain the armored carriers. Get the command carrier to me at once. It’s too damned dry here.”
Princeps Aleixo sat in his elevated throne with the GE-APC Carrier, thinking about the Ambulo Saba he’d been enjoying before all of this ruckus had begun. She was young and had a freshness to her. Not worldly or having been used by others, the Princeps found himself desiring her once again. A rare thing for himself. For rarely did he copulate with one female more than once. Yes, this was something precious to be savored.
“Ductor Samu? Check the roster and see which GE-APC Ambulo Saba is assigned to. Transfer her to my staff at once.”
Princeps Aleixo listened, bored, as the Ductor spoke into the radio. Feeling the GE-APC Carrier slowing down, he let a small smile creep on to his leathery face.
“Princeps, we are stopping to allow a transfer of personnel.”
Princeps Aleixo waved a lazy circle with his clawed hand but did not bother to reply. A few moments later, one of the armored hatches opened and was quickly closed, not allowing the humid air to escape.
Ductor Samu stood up from his station and walked to the elevated throne, then dropped to one knee. “Princeps Aleixo, Ambulo Saba is now transferred to your staff as ordered.”
Ambulo Saba kneeled and bowed her head. “My Princeps, I serve.”
Princeps Aleixo could feel the GE-APC Carrier accelerating. “Rise, Ambulo Saba. Welcome. We will sort out your duties later. Be satisfied with the joining.”
Her head still bowed, she spoke. “Thank you, Princeps.”
Ductor Samu rose and returned to his station; a moment later, Ambulo Saba did as well, finding a luxurious seat allowed along the sides of the oversized interior of the GE-APC Carrier.
She looked around at all of the space. The GE-APC she had just dismounted from was standing room only. Designed to carry thirty Ambulo seated, each GE-APC was at maximum load of ninety Ambulo standing. She’d felt fortunate not to be left behind with the other sixteen hundred and ten Ambulo. The Dux (captain) said the GE-APC would return for them once they reached Sabulo Megalopolis.
Settling herself down comfortably into her seat, she smiled. The Princeps, seeing her smile, returned one of his own.
A predatorial smile.
You speak of a thousand suns that never die.
Yet they do.
Nothing is lost, and everything gained.
Born once again, fresh and unsullied. But this is not enough, for no one remains so for very long. For to do so is not to learn. Even the lower creatures crave more. Slowly learning as their immutable genes claw and steal their way upward. Towards intelligence of a form or another.
The gods themselves are not lost to this. For in some small ways, they, too, had to do something similar. It makes one wonder if perhaps the gods are much like the infinitesimally small of your kind. That there are things out there so much more significant in thought and being that they notice us not. That the very gods that created all that is and is not, might also be as microbes or smaller to something else? That it could be we who are the krill that float in the oceans, as the mighty baleen whale swims by, consuming us without knowledge that we exist as anything other than nutrients?
It does make one wonder, doesn’t it?
Taros watched the show. The girl lay on her back, moaning as the man with a hugely enhanced manhood pumped into her. Moaning and squirming, the girl suddenly pissed on the man, splashing his abdomen and nether regions. He tried not to show his disgust, but his micro-expressions betrayed him. Taros snorted hard in laughter. A loud, braying laughter that went on just long enough to be annoying to others. Of course, no one said anything to Taros; they didn’t want to die. A girl that pissed on him would have a short lifetime indeed, thought Taros.
Dropping a few credits on the table to cover his drinks, he got up and started to head for the door. The “Spice Hut” was known for its audacious sex shows. Taros drank there for the cheap drinks and the laughs. Today was a good day; they made him laugh. Walking down the dirty streets of dock district C, he felt right at home. Taking a quick look at his Mpad, he thought he’d better check on Ivan. Right about now, he’d be low on cash after blowing his wad. The man just wasn’t much of a gambler. Taro crossed the street and entered an alley.
Ivan collected his pot. This had been his day. He’d won every hand at “Smothering aliens.” The funny part was the aliens playing the game. He wasn’t sure if they enjoyed or hated playing the game. They also didn’t comment on the name. He’d lost a few hands at “Triple headed snake,” but really found his stride playing “Fletcher’s dozen.”
Putting the money in a bag shoved inside his pants, he left just what he needed on the table. The humans at this table grumbled and occasionally glanced his way in anger as he won again. Beginning to be nervous, Ivan got up. Feeling sweaty and hot, he started to walk away, when a large grey-green hand gripped his arm. “Where are you going, stranger? Not gonna let us have a try at winning my money back?”
Ivan looked over at him. Tall, this bastard was tall! Ivan stood at two meters, but by the red three horned gods, it had to be at least three and a half meters high! Arms as big as his torso, its grip like steel. Ivan realized it was crouching so as not to bump its head going through doorways.
Ivan looked up into the grey-green eyes of this tall alien and spoke. “Sorry, mister, I finished my games. I’m not sure who you are, but you’d best let go of me. I don’t want any trouble, but if it’s trouble you want, it’s trouble you’ll have.”
The grey-green eyes watched him carefully. Its frog-like mouth started to turn upward, as if in a smile. Then it began to laugh—laugh hard, so hard it farted as well.
Ivan held his nose. “Son of a bitch, you got no manners, pal. Keep this up, and you’re gonna have trouble!”
The alien released Ivan’s arm. “My name is Alothicota. I was told to speak with Ivan, a loser at cards, but a winner at transportation services. Might that be you?”
Ivan pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “Yar, that’s me. What can I do you for?”
Alothicota adjusted the webbed outfit that crisscrossed his strangely lumpy body. “I need something delivered. It’s time sensitive, so there’s not a moment to delay. I’ll pay you twice whatever your normal rate is. It just has to be done now.”
Ivan took a drag on his cigarette. “Okay, we can do it. I just have to go get my partner, and we’ll be off.”
Alothicota pulled a battered piece of paper from a pocket of his oily webbing. “Meet me here in thirty minutes. Don’t be late. You get your money upfront. Deliver on time and a bonus of the same amount on the back end.”
Ivan held the oily paper in two fingers, trying not to get any on himself. Then looking over at Alothicota, he said, “See you in thirty minutes, pal.”
Ivan pulled up a map on his Mpad. The place was maybe a ten-minute walk. Now all he had to do was find Taros. And as everyone on any planet that Taros had had the opportunity to visit knew, you didn’t find Taros Crosse, he found you. May the gods help you.
Just as Ivan started to call him, the door slammed open, and Taros walked in. His huge horns scraped the door frame as he walked past it. Taros marking his territory again. “Ivan, anyone needing a good ass beating?”
Ivan looked around at the terrified crowd. “Yeah, probably more than a few, but no worries for now.”
Looking around and lowering his voice, he said, “I got a transport job. But it’s a rush job, so we gotta go now.”
“Anything worth doing, Ivan, is worth doing right. Bartender, whiskey!”
Taros stomped over to the bar, his steel shorn hooves leaving marks on the floor. The bartender placed a shot glass in front of Taros, then pulled a whiskey bottle from the barback. Removing the stopper, he started to pour. That is until Taros placed his huge mitt over the bartender’s hand. “Perhaps I may pour myself?”
The bartender, frightened by Taros and, worse, his reputation, nodded rapidly. Taros, instead of pouring a shot glass, poured the whiskey straight down his throat, chugging the whiskey like water on a hot day until the bottle was empty. Letting out a low moaning bovine burp utterance, he wiped his lips with the back of his forearm. “Gods damn fine brew! Now, perhaps a bowl of your finest congee?”
The barman nodded rapidly as he backed away and ran into the kitchen.
Ivan shouted out to the bartender, “One for me as well!”
Ivan picked up the empty whiskey bottle. “Thanks for saving me a drink, Taros.”
Taros snorted, then reached out and grabbed another bottle from under the bar. Looking at it, he threw it back with a crash. After the fourth bottle, he found what he wanted. Grunting, he set it on the bar. “There you go, friend. A bottle made just for you.”
Ivan took the bottle and pried the cork out.
Then he took a long pull from it. “That’s better.”
Looking at his watch, he glanced at Taros. “We’d better get going if we’re going to make it on time.”
Taros continued staring into the mirror behind the bar. “I was thinking of having armor crafted to the end of my horns.” Turning to Ivan, he said, “How do you think it will look?”
Ivan, getting worried, fumbled a cigarette out. He lit it, puffing rapidly. “I don’t know, Taros, on you, everything pretty much looks good on you. I mean, look at you. You are a solid tower of muscle, with a hide that very few things can make a hole in. You are a gods damned Adonis in bull form. Yeah, so uh, I’m sure it would look great.” Ivan looked at his watch again. “We gotta get going if we plan to get this load, Taros.”
The bartender returned with two bowls of congee. Taros slapped down a couple of credits on the bar that the bartender quickly made disappear.
“Eat your congee, Ivan. It’ll make you strong. Cigarettes will kill you.”
Ivan looked seriously at Taros. “It’s probably gonna be you who kills me, Taros.”
Taros tossed his head back, laughing. “You’re probably right, Ivan. But a glorious death it will be, my friend.”
Ivan looked at his watch. “We’re late, Taros. Too late.”
Ivan dejectedly picked at the congee in front of him.
Taros finished eating, then turned and looked at Ivan. “Balderdash! If he wants the load, he’ll come meet us. If not, it wasn’t real anyway, just a setup to jump us or something else that will end up with them bleeding and dead.”
Taros snorted. “Look at it this way, Ivan. I didn’t kill everyone. You probably saved their miserable lives. Kept them from the recycling chute.”
Ivan cocked his head. “Truth, Taros.”
Ivan picked up the whiskey bottle and poured both of them a drink. Picking up his glass, he held it up. Taros grabbed the whiskey bottle and clicked it with Ivan’s. Ivan threw back his shot as Taros drank from the bottle. Slamming it back on the bar, Taros belched a prodigious basso burp. The other patrons of the bar stopped for a moment, then quickly went back to doing what they were doing, not wanting to attract Taro’s attention.
Taros slapped Ivan on the back, almost knocking him over. “Let’s get back to the ship and catch some Z's.”
Ivan nodded and started to get up when the tall alien Alothicota entered the bar.
Taros looked over at him with a grin. “Hey, frogman!”
Alothicota frowned, his muscles tensing. He looked over at Ivan, standing next to Taros. “I waited, Ivan. I told you this was time sensitive.”
Ivan narrowed his eyes, his head lowering. “I don’t do anything without my partner, and he hadn’t finished his drink yet.”
Taros snorted. The alien was tall, but Taros was bigger. Well bigger, meaner, and looking for a fight.
“You got a problem with Ivan, Frogman? Then you got a problem with me, and just so you know, I like problems.” Taros cracked his big knuckles. His breath came out in steaming huffs.
Alothicota stared at Taros, his grey-green eyes darting back and forth between them. “My name is Alothicota. I’m looking to have some cargo moved. I was told that discretion was your byline, but I am beginning to have doubts, friend.”
Taros relaxed, looking a bit disappointed. “Come sit down, Alothicota. You froggies drink whiskey?”
Alothicota nodded and came over, sitting on a barstool by Taros. Taros slapped him on the back. “Have a drink, Frogman.” He then looked at his sticky hand, wiping it off on his pants.
Ivan poured him a glass of whiskey from Taros’s bottle.
Alothicota picked up the glass and threw it back in one swallow.
Taros nodded. “I like you a little better now, Frogman. Maybe I’ll let you live after all.”
Ivan looked at Taros and sighed. Lighting another cigarette, he said, “What can we do for you, Alothicota? I know you want something moved, but we’ll need a few more details, like where’s the package, how large, weight, etc. Then things like where do you want it delivered.”
Alothicota made a strange whistling sound coming from his gut. “I need to get to Sabulo Megalopolis. Any of the transport hubs there would be fine.”
Leaning in, he whispered, “My eggs are coming to fruition. There are those that would have them destroyed. I must escape from here soon before they come. I have friends in the Sabulo Megalopolis that will help me. I can pay you.” Alothicota started to bring out a huge wad of credits.
Ivan pushed his hand back. “Not here. At the ship.”
Ivan looked at Taros. “Let’s go, Taros, before this guy pops, and we got a thousand little froggies hopping around.”
Taros smiled a rare smile. “That sounds nice, Frogman. Let’s get the hell out of the shit stain.” Taros started to slap him on the back, then stopped when he remembered the slime.
Walking through a back alley, an overcoat hid his body armor. A shortened machine rifle was held loosely in his hand as he moved shadow to shadow. He didn’t have much time. An overlay in the dark goggles he wore laid out the path in front of him.
Sabulo Megalopolis was a cesspool of alien corruption and vice, constantly in a state of internal civil war between the majority alien factions and the much smaller human ones. Once Sabulo Megalopolis had been wealthy with massive mineral deposits and water supplies. But now the main export was psychedelic mushrooms, the primary crop grown deep in the under levels.
Turning a corner, he paused in the shadows as a drunken group of lecherous aliens stood fondling a partially undressed human woman. These sickening creatures touched her with their frond-like appendages, rubbing between her legs as she moaned out loud. One of three, stiff with pleasure, moved forwards towards her, his pointed member jutting out from his pelvis.
Warrant officer specialist Ivor quietly removed a suppressor from the webbing of his gear and affixed it to the end of his machine rifle. Kneeling, he carefully sighted in on the aliens. Setting his weapon to three round burst, he squeezed the trigger.
The aliens, their heads now pulverized mush, lay in awkward positions on the ground. The drunken woman came out of her stupor for a moment; seeing dead bodies around her, she started screaming. She stumbled away, shambling down the alleyway, drunk, vomiting, and screaming. Just another day in the under levels.
Rising, he quickly slipped away, following a rapidly alternating path. Never deviating from his orders, never questioning. For that was not their way. A warrant officer of the judiciary of Caligo Megalopolis specializing in assassinations, he came for the one known as Alothicota.
Dux (Captain) Ambroos roared along in the ground effect armored personnel carrier (GE-APC). The two massive engines mounted high to the rear were capable of rotating, allowing them to hover and reverse when needed. Dux Ambroos enjoyed this part of his job: being in command, running hard, looking for the next fight.
Around him in a large ovoid formation, forty-six GE-APCs roared along the surface of the sand, the GE-APC Carrier at its center. Protecting the Princeps was order number one. Getting the Ambulo to safety, number two. They’d left a lot of good Ambulo behind, and he was in a hurry to get back to them. They would need at least eighteen GE-APC to carry the sixteen hundred and ten Ambulo. That would leave twenty-eight heavily armed GE-APCs and forty-one hundred and forty Ambulo to protect the Princeps. He would be in good hands.
Dux Ambroos watched speed and height carefully, as the GE-APCs were heavily overloaded. Riding barely fifteen meters above the sand, he’d ordered the group to reduce the speed to one hundred and twelve kilometers an hour. Some of the towering dunes were so large, they went around to avoid them bouncing up and down. Looking at his chronometer, he quickly calculated they would be in Sabulo Megalopolis in a little over four and a half hours. Once they were allowed to enter, he could get the troops offloaded and make a high speed run back. Twelve to fourteen hours turnaround, tops. He was still nervous about leaving them there. The Princeps refused to allow him to leave at least six of the GE-APCs behind for security.
With the large bore maser cannon (LBMC), twin storm lasers on each side, and a 60mm grenade launcher mounted high between the engines, they could hold off almost anything. Unfortunately, as usual, the Princeps wanted all of the armor with him. Dux Ambroos kept these traitorous thoughts to himself.
Again checking the instruments, he noted the dunes appeared to be diminishing in size as they closed on the megalopolis.
Touching his mike, he opened a channel. “All GE-APC! The size of the dunes is diminishing; we will increase our rate of speed. Watch your redlines! Signal if you have trouble. Out.”
The Dux reached out and touched the screen in front of him. The engines spooled up even higher, the stress of the extra weight showing. The GE-APC formation was soon running at one hundred and eighty kilometers an hour, cutting down on the time inbound. Watching the redline gauges, he smiled to himself.
The engines spooled up on the Avem Vecto for atmo flight. Her armored hide was built for tough reentry flights through a debris-filled atmosphere. Like Taros, it was tough to make a hole in her.
Ivan quickly went over the preflight, watching the instruments as he did. The weapons systems were at one hundred percent, thanks to an intermediary agent that was friendly with a supply side Sergeant, whose few bad habits (gambling, whores, psychotropic drugs, and more) made him a part of the black market supply chain in Convallis Megalopolis.
Taros bought a couple of brightly colored lime green blankets from the vendor stall on the way back to the ship. He threw one over the seat where he meant for Alothicota to sit.
“Have a seat right there, Frogman.”
Alothicota nodded. “Thank you, Taros. Your reputation doesn’t match your charm.”
Taros rolled his eyes. Throwing another blanket over him, he then strapped him in. “This will keep all those little froggies in your belly warm, Frogman. It will also keep the seats from being slimed. So stay put, and we’ll get you there in no time.”
Taros walked forward to the bridge. “I think the frogman was hitting on me, Ivan.”
Ivan looked back at Taros. “Really?” Then he shook his head and started to laugh. “I guess it takes all kinds.”
Taros snorted. “I guess it does, Ivan. But I’m not screwin’ some frogman. Not even with your pathetic dick.”
He turned and started climbing up the ladder to the bucket. Seating himself in, he checked the controls. Intermediate and long range heavy missile systems were locked out. Feeling his eyes narrow a bit as the rage built up in him, Taros worked at calming himself.
He flipped the switch on the coms. “Ivan, the missile systems seem to have me locked out for some reason. Probably because of the reloads?”
Ivan’s voice sounded shaky. “Yeah, probably, Taros.”
“That makes sense. You should probably unlock them then. Unless you’ve forgotten how. Seeing as you don’t handle these systems much, I can come down and do that for you.”
Ivan’s voice became a little higher. “Yeah, I mean, no. I’m doing it now, Taros. No worries.”
Taros relaxed a little. His eyes lost the red tint to them. “Thanks, Ivan. You are a good friend. You keep us flying, an I’ll do the shooting.” Then he closed the coms.
Ivan wiped away the sweat from his face with a dirty rag. Feeling angry, he didn’t bother calling for takeoff clearance. Instead, he applied full power for a combat dust-off. The Avem Vecto leaped into the air, exhaust blasting everything around it as it rose. The coms squawked with traffic control making threats, but Ivan ignored them. Spiraling up into the air, he dodged the traffic patterns around him. A considerable g-force exerted on to Ivan on the cockpit. Above him, he could hear Taros start laughing madly in the bucket as he was thrown around. Alothicota, strapped in below, remained silent.
Ivan didn’t care about any of this.
The Avem Vecto was his transport, flying the unfriendly skies.
Sanzador lifted his head enough to see over the edge of the dune. His clothes and skin were coated with white sand. In the distance, he could see the meat. Some of them sat together, eating, resting, or playing games of chance. A few patrolled around the large group, weapons held loosely in overconfidence. Zoac lay next to him, his rifle sighted on one of the guards.
“Not yet,” whispered Sanzador.
Sanzador looked behind him. He could see but a few of the almost five thousand warriors hidden among the dunes. Remarkably, they’d maintained their silence. Approaching from downwind was required as the stench of the Ogin body was the smell of the dead and eaten, he thought. The sky was starting to darken. Looking at Zoac, he whispered, “Soon.”Ambulo Annis sat towards the inner core of the group. The GE-APCs had left four hours ago. Night was approaching, and many among the Ambulos left behind behaved as if they were camping in the swamps of their homeworld. Not some desiccated desert they had crash landed upon. She reached up and touched one of her large teeth for luck. Checking her weapon for the fourth time that hour, she looked at the Ambulos around her. Even the ones on patrol were slipshod in their duties. None of the leadership was left behind with them. Getting up, she decided. Quickly, she walked to the edge of the camp and out into the growing darkness.
Light reflecting from the white sand made it easy to see. Ambulo Annis moved carefully as she had been taught by her father while hunting in the marshy swamps of their home. Growing up poor would have been thought of as a disadvantage by most, but she found it a blessing. She was taught to hunt or be hungry. To move quietly and surely of foot, letting none know of your passage, for there were things greater than you moving silently in the dark of the night. She moved farther away from camp, feeling the night slip into her like an old friend. Stopping on the rise of a large dune of sand, she lay down.
Peering over the edge, nothing.
Good, she thought.
The lack of humidity was oppressing. She was used to the heat. Her world and the worlds the Ambulans inhabited were always hot. But this lack of humidity she found uncomfortable. She drank a small bit from her water tube, before moving again. Farther and farther out. Feeling confident that she was around six kilometers out, she began to circle wide around the camp. If anyone or anything were hiding out here, she would find it. Shouldering her plas-rifle, she pulled out her machaíri, the curved knife of the Ambulo. Patting the plas-snub in place on her belt, she moved forward.
Sanzador turned his head. “Zoac, pass the word. We approach quietly. I want them taken alive.”
Zoac nodded in the dark. “Yes, Sanzador, I will make it so,” he whispered, then moved off.
Sanzador listened intently for any sounds made by the Ogin. Hearing only the faint wind, he grinned in what passed for humor on his scarred and knarled face.